Leadership Howard County twice asked Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz to join the elite corps of volunteers it trains to serve local nonprofit organizations. Both times, the Ellicott City couple said no -- citing the demands of running EVI Inc., their fast-growing Columbia company.
But the local leadership-skills training organization -- celebrating its 10th anniversary this month -- eventually persuaded the Horowitzes to spend $2,500 each for tuition and commit 11 days to learning about Howard County's needs and how they might help meet them.
As a result, Ms. Horowitz now serves on the Columbia Foundation Board of Trustees and on the Board of Advisers for the Johns Hopkins University continuing education center in Columbia. Mr. Horowitz is a member of the executive committees of the Howard County Arts Council and the Howard County Mental Health Association.
And the Horowitzes -- who once viewed the county merely as a convenient place to run a company that does most of its business with the federal government -- now say they didn't know what they were missing.
"We weren't really tuned in. Our life wasn't here," Ms. Horowitz says. "But we've completely turned that around. We've really gotten involved."
That's exactly what Shirley M. Burrill, Leadership Howard County's executive director, seeks to make happen with everyone coming through the yearlong training program. Getting "the outstanding people who aren't committed to their communities committed -- tapping into that source of leadership -- is what we're all about," she says.
The list of active Leadership Howard County alumni comprises a who's who for the county. Nearly 50 industry leaders, more than 100 of their top deputies, the leaders of nearly 50 nonprofit organizations and many prominent lawyers are among them. The upper echelons of county government and the school system also are well represented.
Networking -- "building relationships with people who are like-minded" -- is the greatest value of the program, says County Councilman Darrel Drown, a member of the group's 1990 class. XTC allows you to get to know the people you need to know to get things done."
Beginning Sept. 19, the incoming class of 40 will spend a 9 1/2 -hour day each month visiting public and private county institutions and listening to local experts talk about community services, the criminal justice system, economic development, public education, local government, health care and media.
The training seems to last. Of the 335 people who have graduated from the program, 297 are serving on boards and executive committees of more than 160 nonprofit organizations in the Baltimore-Washington area -- organizations ranging from the American Cancer Society to the YMCA.
The local program is part of a nationwide movement that is "growing tremendously," says Wendall Walls, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Community Leadership.
The 450 programs across the country affiliated with the association -- about 800 more are not affiliated -- all share the premise that "the best way to lead is to give to others," he says. But each is different and in a constant state of evolution.
In line with that, Leadership Howard County is changing, says board member Elizabeth K. Mayotte, class of 1992 and director of the Columbia Campus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Studies. Because of the "flattening of organizations" -- big companies downsizing -- nonprofit groups no longer can just look to big organizations for money and volunteers, Ms. Mayotte says.
So the group is looking more toward smaller companies as the source for volunteer leaders. Ms. Horowitz, for example, serves on Ms. Mayotte's advisory committee. And Steve Girard, owner of the Bagel Bin, a company about the size of the Horowitz firm, will join this year's class.
Like the Horowitzes, Mr. Girard spent most of his years in Howard County tending his businesses. "I was so consumed in my business, I had a superficial understanding of the infrastructure for making decisions politically and recreationally within the county," he says. "I understand we will be studying that in a very serious, very formalized manner."
Mr. Girard says he learned about Leadership Howard County from a neighbor, and its low-key, word-of-mouth style appealed to him.
"This seemed like an opportunity to participate in a group concerned about higher ideals. They seem to have a higher ideal than just making money," Mr. Girard says. "This is a significant opportunity for me to find a niche, a passion, a way to give back to a community that has done well for me."
Wants to help teens
The desire to contribute also motivated Linda Starbuck-Schlotthober, general manager of Piccolo's restaurant in Columbia, to join this year's class. Although she has served on various boards and participated in many civic endeavors during her 20 years in the county, Ms. Starbuck-Schlotthober believes the program will give her a better understanding of Howard's inner workings.
"I may not do more than now," she says, "but I am interested in trying to help young adults spend time more wisely recreationally. Teen-agers have a tough time. I want to get them involved early on, feeling a part of the community."
She will find an ally in lawyer Ronald S. Schimel, vice president of the group's board. A member of the organization's first graduating class in 1986, he also worries about the county's youth -- and he's wondering if the time is right to initiate a leadership training program aimed at them.
When he joined Leadership Howard County 10 years ago, Mr. Schimel, who was already very involved in the community, was looking for relief. "It was my very strong impression that it was the same people over and over again rather than an expanded base of talented, very committed people" who were involved in community groups, he says. "People were getting zapped. Leadership [Howard County] had the appeal of self-preservation."
Gets more involved
But instead of becoming less involved, Mr. Schimel became more so. "I live here and I love it here," he says. "The work of creation is never complete. Problems evolve and enlarge. They are so much more serious and deeper today than 10 years ago. It is my hope that organizations like Leadership [Howard County] will stimulate people and help them find they have the power to affect significant change."
In the process, says Maurice L. Simkins, vice president for public affairs at the Ryland Group and a member of the class of 1995, the training program gives participants the chance to share "wonderful experiences with some very committed, very idealistic people who want to become players in the community."
Making a difference
Ms. Mayotte agrees. "I'm a child of the '60s," she says. "I have a desire to make a difference if at all possible. It is much easier working with talented, creative folks rather than in isolation. It is very exciting to deal with folks where ego isn't the issue and you have a vision, a goal beyond the individual."
Mr. Horowitz, too, has become an enthusiastic convert. "We got to meet a lot of committed people we wouldn't have met otherwise," he says. "To paraphrase [Irish dramatist] Sean O'Casey, it's given us more of an opportunity to live."